By Dana Stevens
The point is to dwell even more deeply in the imaginary space the book opens up, to love it in a different way.
Envisioning the movie version of a beloved book is at once an act of tenderness and of violence. Even as you recognize that the thought experiment is likely to end in failure, you find yourself mentally casting the main characters, finessing the details of costume and production design, maybe even framing the opening shot. No film that commits the crass act of existing could compare with the one that takes shape in your mind as you read, a project unbeholden to the demands of budget or box-office draw or, indeed, the laws of time and space. (Want to cast Cary Grant opposite Cate Blanchett in a screwball update of “Pride and Prejudice”? Have at it.)
Nor should the knowledge that great novels rarely make for great films — and that so-so potboilers often inspire brilliant ones — put a dent in the would-be adapter’s book-to-movie fantasies. The point of imagining the movie version of the book as you read isn’t to develop a filmable script (unless you’re in the unenviable position of actually trying to get the thing made). It’s to dwell even more deeply in the imaginary space the book opens up, to love it in a different way.
That’s why I’m going to go out on a limb and pitch Edith Wharton’s novel “The Custom of the Country” as a candidate for fantasy adaptation. A kind of companion-in-reverse to her earlier success, “The House of Mirth,” this mordantly comic 1913 novel traces not the downward mobility of a refined young woman, but the upward mobility of a coarse one: Undine Spragg, a social-climbing Midwestern beauty whose extravagantly ugly name befits her all-around awfulness. Having manipulated her enabling nouveau riche parents into relocating to New York, Undine rises high enough in social circles to snag a well born if not exactly wealthy man, then spends the rest of the book finagling to trade up to ever richer husbands, cheating and lying as the occasion requires. Not only does she neglect her young son, she uses him as collateral in a nasty blackmail scheme. Undine Spragg is one of literature’s most reprehensible and yet touching antiheroines, as morally vapid as she is socially adroit, unable to comprehend her continued dissatisfaction with a life built entirely on vanity, ambition and greed.
In the age of reality television and social-media fame, it’s easy to imagine a contemporarily relevant on-screen Undine, a Real Housewife of the Gilded Age. I could see her played by Amy Adams in resplendent period costume (insatiable lust for, and subsequent boredom with, expensive new clothes being one of Undine’s most salient traits) or by Busy Philipps in a pink tracksuit in a modern-day update set in Southern California. The project would require a director who could at once appreciate the tragic reach of the damage wrought by Undine’s monstrous selfishness and sympathize with her as an ambitious, appetitive woman whose era left her few options for advancement outside of aspirational marriage. Sofia Coppola might be able to pull it off, but as the sole executive producer of this project, I’m hiring Todd Haynes (or maybe a time-traveling Douglas Sirk).
There are scenes from the book I can’t stop picturing on film, like the late chapter in which Undine’s young son, Paul, left alone for the afternoon with a houseful of indifferent servants in his mother’s sumptuous Paris apartment, wanders disconsolately into a bedroom that both belongs to and resembles his perpetually absent mother: “all pale silks and velvets, artful mirrors and veiled lamps.” But it’s hard to envision an adequate cinematic rendering of the novel’s sly, sad, chilling ending, in which Undine, checking “the glitter of her hair” in the mirror as her now impeccably A-list party guests begin to arrive, feels a nagging twinge of resentment that because of her status as a divorcée, she will never become an ambassador’s wife. No clunky voice-over could convey that last page’s gossamer irony. But maybe — in my dream adaptation, anyway — the right actress could do it with just her eyes.
Dana Stevens is the film critic at Slate and a co-host of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. She has also written for The Atlantic and Bookforum, among other publications.